Rhetorical Device Known as Syllepsis

uncle fester from the adam's family
"I live in shame . . . and the suburbs." (Christopher Lloyd as Uncle Fester in Addams Family Values, 1993). (Paramount Pictures)

Syllepsis is a rhetorical term for a kind of ellipsis in which one word (usually a verb) is understood differently in relation to two or more other words, which it modifies or governs. Adjective: sylleptic.

As Bernard Dupriez points out in A Dictionary of Literary Devices (1991), "There is little agreement among rhetoricians on the difference between syllepsis and zeugma," and Brian Vickers notes that even the Oxford English Dictionary "confuses syllepsis and zeugma" (Classical Rhetoric in English Poetry, 1989). In contemporary rhetoric, the two terms are commonly used interchangeably to refer to a figure of speech in which the same word is applied to two others in different senses.

From the Greek, "a taking"


  • "When I address Fred I never have to raise either my voice or my hopes."
    (E.B. White, "Dog Training." One Man's Meat, 1942
  • "We consumers like names that reflect what the company does. We know, for example, that International Business Machines makes business machines, and Ford Motors makes Fords, and Sara Lee makes us fat."
    (Dave Barry, "Dave's World." International Herald Tribune, April 8, 2001)
  • Ana . . . first meets Christian Grey at Grey House, which is home to Grey Enterprises, in Seattle. . . . Ana, ushered into his presence, stumbles first over the threshold and then over her words."
    (Anthony Lane, "No Pain, No Gain" [review of Fifty Shades of Grey]. The New Yorker, February 23 and March 2, 2015
  • "Vegetarianism is harmless enough, though it is apt to fill a man with wind and self-righteousness."
    (Robert Hutchinson, address to the British Medical Association, 1930)
  • "I searched for a sign that she had witnessed more of Mrs. Urquhart's scandalous behavior, but her face was its usual mask of Max Factor foundation and disappointment with life."
    (Sue Townsend, Adrian Mole: The Prostrate Years. Penguin, 2010
  • "Miss Bolo rose from the table considerably agitated, and went straight home in a flood of tears, and a sedan chair."
    (Charles Dickens, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, 1837
  • "Piano, n. A parlor utensil for subduing the impenitent visitor. It is operated by depressing the keys of the machine and the spirits of the audience."
    (Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary, 1911
  • "I finally told Ross, late in the summer, that I was losing weight, my grip, and possibly my mind."
    (James Thurber, The Years with Ross, 1959
  • "She tracks sand in as well as ideas, and I have to sweep up after her two or three times a day."
    (E.B. White, "On a Florida Key." One Man's Meat, 1942
  • "The ice trays show deep claw marks, where people have tried to pry them free, using can openers and knives and screwdrivers and petulance."
    (E.B. White, "On a Florida Key." One Man's Meat, 1942
  • "You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality."
    (Margaret Atwood, "Ten Rules for Writers." The Guardian, February 19, 2010
  • Bryant Gumbel's well-publicized memo ticked off the Today Show's troubles—and other personalities on the top-rated show.
  • "First she fell under his spell. Then she fell under a train."
    (Strapline for a film version of Anna Karenina, quoted in Film Freak by Christopher Fowler
  • "You took my hand and breath away."
    (Tyler Hilton, "You, My Love," 2004
  • "PEACE. Live in it or rest in it."
    (bumper sticker
  • "She blew my nose and then she blew my mind."
    (Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, "Honky Tonk Woman," 1969
  • "It's a small apartment. I've barely enough room to lay my hat and a few friends."
    (attributed to Dorothy Parker
  • The secret to becoming a writer is to persist—to keep on writing regardless if you're paid any heed or money.


  • "Zeugma, syllepsis—even dictionaries and linguists find it difficult to agree on which is which. They agree only that what is generally involved is a verb (or some other part of speech) that is doing double duty. In one case there's a syntactical problem; in the other, a verb has two or more objects yoked together, objects that are not compatible, since for each the verb is used in a different sense; for example, He took his hat and his departure."
    (Maxwell Nurnberg, I Always Look Up the Word "Egregious." Prentice Hall, 1981
  • "Significantly, zeugma or syllepsis is word-yoking often because it is meaning-yoking. In 'opening the door and heart to the homeless boy,' for instance, opening the heart opens the door, for it is the heart that opens or closes the door; to 'open' yokes the 'heart' inside with the 'door' outside. To 'open' performs a zeugma-activity. Or is it syllepsis? In any case, metaphor performs both functions . . .. Metaphor is a zeugma(-syllepsis) yoking two matters under one word (verb), yoking old and alien, past and future."
    (Kuang-ming Wu, On Metaphoring: A Cultural Hermeneutic. Brill, 2001)

    Pronunciation: si-LEP-sis